Friday, July 27, 2012

My Food Waste Foibles

I've been inspired recently by The Frugal Girl's Food Waste Friday series. It got me to clean out my pantry, and after I got over the shame and the gross out of the 10 year old food that was lurking, I decided to both force myself to eat through all the pantry backlog that's still edible and to take a closer look at my food waste in general.


Here are before and after pictures of the "use it or lose it" pile, although the comparison doesn't completely reflect the amount of pantry stuff that I've eaten through because I keep finding more things shoved to the back of a cabinet here and there, and I've also been working my way through the backlog in the freezer. Plus, there are, um.... a LOT of dried beans & rice that didn't make it into either photo... we're talking like gallons... but I'm ignoring that for the moment - although I have eaten half of a jar of lentils so far.

Use it or Lose it pile from a few months ago

Use it or lose it pile now

I've been enjoying reading through everybody's Food Waste Friday posts, especially Jo's over at Simply Being Mum.... holy moly, her refrigerator makes me hang my head in shame! But reading through the kinds of food waste that most people report has made me realize that I have some real idiosyncrasies in this department.

Most of the food waste that people report is either fresh produce or leftovers... and strangely enough, I almost NEVER end up tossing either of those sorts of things. My foibles are canned foods, frozen stuff and dry goods. It's the stuff that I stock up on figuring I'll "always need" some xyz. But then it gets lost in a back shelf of the pantry, or in the back of the freezer or I just forget about it or lose interest.

I'm not sure what this says about me... I think there might be a fine line between preparedness and hoarding...

So. I'm on a stocking up moratorium here. I'm not buying any non-perishable stuff unless it's something that I actually need... meaning I don't have anything else I can substitute and I have a specific plan for using it within the next week or so. I'm just not going to listen to that little voice in my head that's always telling me to stock up "just in case."

Plus, I'm trying REALLY hard to make sure that I eat at least something from the use it or lose it pile every day. It may take me a while to get through it all, but I'll get there...

Over the next few weeks, I'll write some posts about how I avoid wasting leftovers and fresh produce. In the meantime I see a lot of beans and rice in my future! 

So what are your food waste foibles?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Darwinian Gardening

I LOVE to garden. Well, let me qualify that. I love my vegetable garden. As far as the ornamental stuff goes... well... let's just say that I prefer to pretend I don't have a front yard.

It's not that I don't appreciate a beautiful yard or flower garden when I see one, it's just that it's hard for me to get invested enough to spend the kind of time and energy necessary when there's really nothing in it for me. OK, OK... not NOTHING... it does make the neighbors happy, and keeps the city from sending me weed notices - this has never actually happened, but there have been times that I've worried that it might. Plus I suppose it does do something for the "value of the property".

But somehow all of that just pales in comparison to the big F... you know, food!

Anyhow, over the years I have developed a few strategies for dealing with my front yard. In truth, the whole idea of me offering advice on yard care is somewhat laughable, but when has that sort of thing ever stopped me before?

My basic principle, when it comes to taking care of the yard is that I want to do as little work as possible. I also refuse to use chemical pesticides, weed killers or fertilizers. I have an electric mower which I resort to when things get really bad, but in general I vastly prefer my hand push reel mower... it is just SO. MUCH. EASIER. I refuse to install a sprinkler system, and in general I HATE hauling the sprinkler around.

So, given all of the above, and the fact that Denver is not a place where enough water falls from the sky to cultivate anything that might be called a lawn without the assistance of regular watering, my strategy has been to slowly replace chunks of grass with areas of xeriscape or low water garden.

Even so, I've managed to kill off a fair number of low water plants because alas, they are only "low water," not "no water!" But... there are a few survivors, and this is where the Darwinian part comes in - if it lives, I plant more! 

And I generally don't go out and buy more of the same plants, I just dig up a bit of the thriving plant and move it around.

So the current winners are...

Sweet Alyssum (or maybe it's Candytuft?)
See discussion in comments below... maybe some of you have better plant identification skills than I do!
This stuff blooms beautifully in the spring and is hardy enough to thrive in our hot dry summers. It is a low sprawling ground cover with woody branches... here are a few more photos:

Alyssum? Candytuft? Something else? Any thoughts are welcome!

These poor little guys are getting totally swamped by the alyssum so I need to do some work there. I'll probably dig out some of the alyssum and spread it around a bit and also move a few chunks of lavender to other spots in the garden. This is a nice one because it has color throughout the hottest part of the summer.

Hens & chicks
The quintessential drought tolerant succulent. These guys fill in quite nicely and do well with almost no water.

Purple Iris
These actually need to be thinned - it amazes me that something is thriving enough to require thinning in my yard. Got them from a friend when she was thinning hers and they add such a beautiful splash of purple in the springtime.

I have these in both red and pink varieties. They're a perennial, but they also spread via seeds, so if you help them along a bit by spreading the seeds they fill in nicely.

Sedum Angelina
This isn't the best sedum I've found, meaning that it takes a while to establish and doesn't fill in readily, but it's pretty and adds some nice color. Plus I haven't killed it yet!

Marigolds are an annual, but they re-seed nicely each year, and if you harvest some seeds in the fall and spread them around in the spring they seem to do quite well.

Creeping Phlox
These guys have little spiney evergreen like branches with pretty flowers in the springtime. They've survived over 10 years, which is sort of a miracle, but they don't really spread as much as I would like. I think the name is a tad bit optimistic.

And last but most certainly not least...

Silver Stone Sedum! 
All I have to say is this stuff totally rocks! A few sprigs of it arrived with the iris that I got from my friend and with a bit of help from me, it's now spread throughout the garden. It requires almost no water, and if you break off a sprig, you just stick it in the ground and it roots & takes off. Woo Hoo!!!!

Anyhow, that's about it for the quick tour of my Darwinian garden. Got any other suggestions for plants that need scant water and are hard to kill? 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Is This Just a Weed - or is it Weed?

So I've been doing a bunch of weeding lately. The weeds are most definitely winning this battle, I assure you!

The main culprit in these parts is bindweed, but we also have our fair share of thistles, dandelions, spurge, mallow, pigweed, and a whole host of other invaders.

But, in recent years there has been a new one cropping up in the garden, xeriscape and lawn that I can't seem to identify. But as I was pulling some today it dawned on me that the leaves look awfully familiar - like in a college sort of way. I realize this is kinda crazy, but it sort of looks like marijuana to me.

I realize this makes me a really shitty nouveau hippie, but I honestly don't know what a marijuana plant looks like. I looked online and well... I can't tell. I think there are different varieties, aren't there? 

I mean, is it even possible? Can pot just start growing wild? And at what point does it stop being pot and just become hemp? I know there are some people on the block with medical grow licenses, and they do grow it outdoors... but it couldn't just escape and start growing all over the place could it?

Anyhow, I'm trying to decide if I should be worried about the ATF knocking on my door or something. 

Here are some more shots for your viewing pleasure.

Anyhow, if there's anybody out there with more weed experience than I have (of either variety) I'd be grateful if you'd help me figure out what this stuff is. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Only in America

I was watching the local news the other day and stumbled upon a story about a woman who is being fined $200 by her homeowner's association because her lawn isn't green enough.

I'm not kidding. Click here if you want to read the story and watch the 2 minute piece.

I have to say that I'm still dumbstruck by this one. First of all, by my standards her lawn looks fabulous - seriously, she'd have any house on my block beat hands down. Secondly... we're in the middle of an extreme friggin' drought for gawd's sake! Seriously, here's the latest US drought map... I've outlined Colorado in purple for any non-US readers (or those of you who are just really bad at geography.)

Yup... that's us, the one that looks like it's bleeding because there's so much red. So... yanno... thousands of acres and hundreds of houses have burned to the ground, and crops are failing, and ranchers are selling off their herds because there's no grass for them to eat, and what are the good citizens of the Green Valley Ranch suburb of Denver doing? Levying fines on their neighbors because their lawns aren't green enough!

I'm not really sure where to begin with this one... I mean seriously?

I'm not sure if folks outside of the US have experienced the joy of the homeowner's association - or "neighborhood nazification" as I like to call it. But basically many "nice" neighborhoods require home owners to sign a covenant that legally binds them to maintain their property to the "standards" set by these neighborhood groups... So basically, it's free reign for the neighborhood power-tripping dick-wads to come together and impose all sorts of ridiculous regulations upon their neighbors.

HOA's are famous for banning things like clothes lines & vegetable gardens, or even levying fines on people who happen to leave their garage doors open too long or (heaven forbid) paint their house an un-approved shade of beige. 

The justification is always "property values." And I suppose nothing boosts property values like wasting tons of water to make plants that were never intended to live in this climate look lush and beautiful. Because I know when I'm looking for a neighborhood, what really draws me in, is an environment that just screams "hey- this is where all the self-righteous entitled dicks live!"

OK. I'm done ranting now. But I've gotta say, the view from the cheap seats has never looked nicer! It doesn't fill me with a whole lot of hope for the future of this country though.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Quick and Easy No-Sew Slip Cover

The first piece of "real" furniture that I ever bought was a beautiful ivory colored recliner which I found at a yard sale. It was upholstered with this very "earthy" soft woven cotton (or some other natural fiber) fabric, and I fell in love with it immediately. So for $25 it came home with me.

I knew it was sorta impractical, being white and everything, but I just couldn't help myself. Unfortunately (yet totally predictably) within a few years the cats had made short work of it, reducing it's formerly soft & wonderful upholstery to shreds. Apparently cats like natural fibers too!

For years I tried covering it with various blankets or throws, but it always just looked like a disaster, although Sputnik didn't seem to mind. Here he is over the years, displaying some of his best "lounging in the recliner" poses.

I thought about getting a slip cover for it, but eee gads, the cheapest one I could find cost $50, and I really couldn't justify spending twice as much on the slip cover as I'd spent on the chair itself! Then one day I was folding some fitted sheets and it dawned on me that the fitted part was just the right size and shape to fit over the arm of the chair.

I was inspired and dove in for what I figured would end up being another long, drawn-out and never-finished project, rotting in the land of good intentions (where most of my projects end up.) But somewhere between laziness and ingenuity I struck upon a brilliant solution.

So here's what I did.

I took a set of twin sized bed sheets (the ones I used were old and even had a hole in them... which I strategically situated in a place where it wouldn't show.) I simply cut the fitted sheet in half. If you were feeling energetic, you could hem the cut ends, but since they don't show I never bothered.

Cut fitted sheet in half - Smoky was "helping" with this photo
Then I put the fitted sheet halves over each arm of the chair, with the elastic part tucked in next to the seat cushion. I anchored it by tucking the cut end under the bottom of the chair.

Note the feline "helper" with his tail sticking out

I then took the flat sheet and laid it vertically over the seat, and down the back, anchoring it in back by slipping the corners under the back legs of the chair and allowing the front to hang free so it could still recline. This photo shows it in progress - after laying the sheet out you tuck it in between the seat and arms, and then pull it nicely tight.

Jasper has taken over the "helping" duties
As a final touch, I took two safety pins (one for each chair arm) and snugged up the bits around the arms of the chair, tucking the pins in where they wouldn't show.

Safety pin circled in red - you tuck that part between the seat and arm so it doesn't show

And, voila! A perfectly acceptably if not beautifully slip-covered chair! (Jasper thinks so anyhow.)

It salvaged my favorite chair and actually doesn't look half bad. It stays in place much better than any of my other solutions ever did - I think having separate pieces for the arms and seat helps. Plus it was totally free (got the sheets on FreeCycle for another project that I never finished) and it's a piece of cake to take it off to wash it - which is what I was doing when I got inspired me to write this blog post.

I've been thinking that I might try something similar with the couch and loveseat - probably would need a double or queen sized sheet set for the loveseat and a king size for the couch - but I think it would work. And next time I might use solid colored sheets so it won't be quite so easy to tell if it gets slightly crooked.

So there you have it, the easy-peasy lazy person's DIY slip cover!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Fantasy Spending - The Danger Zone

People are often amazed that I live so happily on so little money. For me the key is to separate out which expenses are helpful and necessary and which ones simply aren't. When it comes to frugal living, people often talk about separating needs from wants.

And while I heartily agree with this idea, in my experience trying to categorize expenses in such an either/or manner is sometimes less than helpful. For my own purposes, I like to think of spending in five separate categories: necessities, secondary necessities, investments, luxuries, and fantasy spending.

Of these five, by far the most insidious - and least discussed is the fantasy category. But before we get there, here's a quick run down of my 5 basic spending categories.

Necessities. When I talk about necessities I mean it in a very literal sense. To me, necessities include food, water, shelter, basic clothing and medicine/health care. These are things I never feel badly about spending money on.

Secondary Necessities. Secondary necessities are things that you need in order to provide the primary ones. This mostly includes job/income related expenses. So for me right now that's mostly computer, server, camera, and related expenses, but for most people this probably includes the cost of commuting, work appropriate clothing, and other things that you need in order to earn your living. These sorts of expenses are generally necessary, though as you free yourself from the world of employment, they will go down considerably.

Investments. When I refer to investments, I'm not talking about things like retirement contributions or other methods of stocking away money - these are not really "expenses" in my book, rather they are "lack of expenses!" When I talk about investment spending I'm referring to things that help to provide for necessities or secondary necessities in the long term. 
In this category I include things like extra principle payments on the mortgage, home repairs, the chest freezer, tools for the home/car and garden, kitchen/cooking equipment, and I also include in this category expenses related to staying healthy such as healthy food, vitamins, and exercise related expenses. This category might also include educational expenses. This sort of expense I generally allow myself - though it's sometimes easy to convince yourself that something is an "investment" when it's really fantasy spending (see below.)

Luxuries. Now, when I talk about luxuries I mean things that actually make your life better, easier or more fun. For me these include things like air conditioning - seriously - we just suffered through the hottest June on record and I was SOOO happy to have the A/C! I also include my car in this category, as well as my bicycle, television, Netflix, all entertainment and recreational expenses, any alcohol or wine, any desserts or snack foods, the occasional meal out, pets and all of their associated expenses, appliances like dishwashers and laundry machines, and even things like hot water for bathing. 

You may be surprised to learn that a hefty chunk of my day to day expenses fall into this luxuries category. I try not to go overboard with this sort of thing, and I also try to make sure that I'm really getting enough enjoyment out of the item or service to justify the amount of work I have to do in order to pay for it.

Fantasy Spending. OK... now this is the category you've probably never heard of before, and I would venture to suggest that it's the most dangerous spending category. My personal belief is that in this culture we are all master picture painters. We excel at creating images of ourselves as "successful," "beautiful" and "important" people who wear the "right" clothing, live in "good" neighborhoods, and drive "nice" cars. We are masters at creating fantasies about who we are and we spend an inordinate amount of time, money and energy simply to pump up these fantasies. 

This type of spending is often confused with luxury spending, the difference is subtle, but very important. While luxury spending actually improves your life in some way, fantasy spending only improves the picture - and the giant marketing machine exploits this angle at every turn.

Examples of fantasy spending can differ wildly from person to person, because our "picture painting" can take so many different forms. But here are some examples. Anything that might be classified as a status symbol is definitely fantasy spending - fancy cars & houses come to mind. Women are particularly susceptible to the fashion industry - believing the nonsense that if we just have the "right" shoes, or blouse, or outfit or "look," it will somehow make us happy. 

Collections and hobbies are also ripe fields for fantasy spending. Many of my musician friends have fallen into the trap of collecting instruments. If you're a professional guitarist it's perfectly plausible that you might need several different instruments for different situations, but I've known plenty of folks who can barely strum three chords, yet have 20-30 expensive guitars that they never play. And then there are people who fill their homes with books & magazines that they don't read, DVD's that they don't watch, craft materials that they don't use - I mean people even have fancy "front rooms" filled with expensive furniture - and these rooms are never used... they're just "for show." 

Replacing perfectly functional items with new varieties, simply because you want something new is also a form of fantasy spending. I was chatting with a neighbor who moved in a year or two ago. She was telling me how she replaced all of the household appliances because they were "old" (purchased in the 2000's.) I asked her if the new ones worked better than the old ones had, and she said, not really - she just felt like she "deserved" new appliances. OY! 

But wait, it gets worse... she started telling me all about her wonderful new convection oven - I've never been clear about what exactly a convection oven is, so she explained that it circulated the heat around making it cook more evenly. I asked her if she felt it had made a difference in the cooking results, and she said she didn't really know because the only thing she uses the oven for is to bake pumpkin pie once a year at Thanksgiving! Talk about fantasy spending! It took some real effort to keep my mouth shut on that one!

I could go on and on with different examples of this sort of spending, and that's the thing about it - it's endless. And the reason it's endless is because when it comes right down to it, it's all form over substance - none of it really makes our lives any better. Having the "right" clothes, or car, or house or whatever won't make you happy. Neither will surrounding yourself with guitars that you don't play, or books that you don't read, or convection ovens that you don't use, or home decor designed to pump up your personal image as an xyz kind of person.

OK... so I know that I probably spend way too much time harping on the idea of dealing with your emotions and facing yourself - but here's a great example of why I think that's so important. It's really hard to cut back on fantasy spending if you're not willing to let go of the fantasy.

But I have found that the more I let go of the whole idea that I need to be a certain kind of person, and portray that image through my stuff and my purchases, the less I feel drawn to this sort of spending. And once you start letting go of the pictures, it becomes a self-reinforcing cycle. You let go of the need to pretend to be something you're not, so you don't need to spend money pumping up that fantasy, then you don't need to spend so much time and energy working to afford the expenses, so you have more time and energy to simply be, and to explore who you really are.

At any rate - if you're trying to pare down your expenses, my suggestion is to take a long hard look at the things you spend money on, and ask yourself if it's really, truly making you happier, or if it's only helping you to maintain the pretty picture.

So what do you think? Do you have any examples of fantasy spending to share?